Many people know that the editor and I grow a lot of our own food. It has been an interesting week because a number people have discussed with us how to go about growing their own produce.
What has driven this increase in curiosity about growing their own food is that there has been an outbreak of a rare strain of salmonella bacteria linked to pre-packaged lettuce sold in the two major supermarkets: Lettuce recall: Health experts warn of more cases of salmonella poisoning linked to salad mixes
What interests me about this salmonella outbreak is that farm is located not too far from here in an area that has supported major commercial market gardens for a very long time.
With the two other recent food poisoning cases (eg: frozen berries and eggs), I’ve often noticed that if the food product is imported people can easily dismiss their concerns as: Dodgy overseas food handling practices. Likewise, if the food was sourced from a small farm then people can dismiss their concerns as: Dirty hippy food. However, this time the farm involved in the salmonella outbreak was a major commercial facility who were supplying the two big supermarket retailers (which make up over 70% of the market in Australia).
Pre-packaged lettuce is very innocuous and very few people would consider it to be a risky product, but at the same time people have been discussing how to grow their own produce with us. My gut feeling is that what we are seeing with this incident (and the other recent ones like it) is cracks forming in the industrial food production processes.
By growing or foraging some of my own food, I am able to minimise my reliance on the industrial food production system. Speaking of foraging, the wild blackberries in this area have finally started to ripen this week. The local council contractors regularly poison the blackberry canes in this mountain range, but I’m aware of one or two spots that they are unaware of and every year I pick enough fruit for fresh eating and jam making. Of course fruit on wild blackberry canes doesn’t all ripen at once and so you have to pick the fruit over a number of weeks.
|Wild blackberries harvested this week|
I pick the blackberries every week and store them in a large container which I keep in the freezer until the container is full – or the blackberries are no longer ripening on the cane. Once the container is full, I then produce a huge quantity of homemade blackberry and rhubarb jam. Hopefully enough jam will be produced to last longer than a year.
Did I mention that this week the weather has been warm and dry?
|Saturday was warm and dry and reached a maximum temperature in the shade of 35.3’C (95.5’F)|
Warm weather is an excellent time to make soap because the chemical reactions occur much faster than in cold weather! Soap is so easy to make and as long as you follow some basic precautions it is almost idiot proof. Soap takes so little of your time to make too, but the entire process does take a few weeks from start to finish. As a teaser, I’ll provide full details on the soap making process in next week’s blog, but really it is very simple and something that everyone can do, anywhere. Below are photos from the soap making activities from the first two days of the process:
|The author pours the caustic solution into the olive oil|
|After a couple of hours in the hot sun, the mix is about 50/50|
|By the next day, the mix is about 90/10|
|By the second day a creamy paste has formed and so I poured in some lavender oil to give the soap a nice smell|
The heat of Saturday was also a good day to check on the oldest bee hive. The bees generally keep the internal temperature of their hives at about 35’C (95’F) as that is the optimal temperature for raising brood. Observant readers will recognise that many species of animals – including us humans – operate at a more or less similar internal temperature.
The oldest bee hive here comprises three brood boxes. The term brood box is simply the fancy name for a box that the bees are allowed to raise new brood in (i.e. new bees). Three boxes of brood can produce an awful lot of bees! With the heat of that early afternoon, I could smell the honey in the oldest hive from about 10m (33ft) away and at the same time the buzzing from the colony was quite audible as a sort of droning noise.
I thought that it would be a good idea to open up the hive and have a look inside. Opening up a hive on a hot day is a good idea for the bees because they lose less of their precious internal temperature that they’ve worked so hard to produce. Conversely, it goes without saying that opening up a hive on a cold and windy day is a total disaster for the bees.
|The oldest bee hive consisting of three brood boxes was opened up on a hot day|
Once the hive was opened I could peer inside and see if the bees were enjoying themselves. It was quite a surprise to me to find that they had almost completely filled the third highest brood box (i.e. the box on top). Bees are clever creatures because if they run out of space, they simply select a new likely spot for the colony somewhere out in the forest – with a second living area, and possibly a second bathroom of course! – and then head off with the Queen, part of the colony and much of the honey. That leaves behind just enough bees to continue the original colony. As a beekeeper, you have to anticipate the needs of the bees and provide them with extra space (i.e. another box) so that they don’t leave taking the majority of the colony (and their honey stores) with them. With that concern in mind, I set about adding a fourth box to the existing three box colony.
Observant readers will note that the above photo has a metal mesh on top of the third brood box. The metal mesh is a Queen excluder and that is a fancy name for a mesh which allows the worker bees to move through the mesh, but because the Queen is too large (as she is double the size of most bees) she won’t be able to squeeze through the steel mesh. The reason the Queen excluder steel mesh is in place is because I don’t wish to have any brood developing in the new and fourth box that will be placed on top of that steel mesh. The technical name for the fourth box that the Queen won’t be able to lay eggs in is a “Honey Super”. So it is my hope that the very large colony of bees will set about filling that new Honey Super with… Honey.
My approach with the bees reflects a lot of the systems on the farm here in that I want most systems to be abundant, but not necessarily that productive. The goal of that strategy is a more resilient outcome. For example, there are over three hundred fruit trees in the orchard and not every tree is productive every year, but at least every year I get some produce from some of the trees. With that goal in mind, I want the bees to have as large a colony as they can maintain which means that they will be a stronger hive and thus be more easily able to respond to any shocks without the many dramas that a smaller hive will confront – and there are a lot of dramas that the bees have to deal with these days. If I get a small amount of honey for my efforts then that is all I expect.
Before I could place a fourth box on the hive, I had to quickly (well, about two hours work for 16 frames) make up the frames that the bees live on. Frames are timber squares with a sheet of wax melted onto thin steel wires threaded through the timber frame and the frames are then placed into the bee box. I use a car battery charger to make the wires hot enough so that they melt into the wax sheets. A person could just as easily use a battery in place of the charger.
|Using a car battery charger to heat the steel wires on a bee frame so that they melt into the wax sheet|
I then got into my bee suit, removed the red roof of the hive and placed the new box (which holds 8 frames) onto the existing three boxes. All the while the bees are buzzing around and getting slowly more and more annoyed by my actions. Put it this way, bees don’t like being disturbed!
|The author in his bee suit places the new honey super onto the existing three box hive|
The job was almost complete and the editor moved in a bit closer to take a great close up photo of the action.
|The fourth box and roof is in place and a drill is used to screw the metal clips holding the whole hive together|
Now at this point in the story, I should point out that observant readers will note that in the photo above there are at least five bees attacking me from the rear. One of the bees even had the audacity to try and sting me on the bum! Fortunately, for me I was wearing a bee suit, so they could do their worst and I could shrug them off. On the other hand, it was a hot day and putting on a heavy bee suit is a pain. The editor in her wisdom chose not to wear a bee suit, and a bee consequently stung her on the face, whilst three other bees became caught in her hair. There was a bit of a commotion…
Now the editor wishes to remain anonymous so I can’t show you, the readers, how much she has suffered over the past few days, purely for your reading and viewing enjoyment. However, so you get a feel for her overall look, here is a photo which shows the results of a bee sting that I received on the side of my head two years ago. As an interesting side note, I also opened the garden that afternoon to a local gardening group and they were very nice about the fact that half of my head looked a puffer fish!
The reaction to the venom is what is known as a localised reaction and it is pretty typical of bee stings. As an interesting observation, we have noted that the regular consumption of honey (and anti-histamines) afterwards helps to reduce the inflammation. This effect was discovered purely by accident when the editor consumed a glass of mead which had a noticeable anti-inflammatory effect. We weren’t going to produce further mead as it is an expensive wine, but may brew up another batch or two over the next few weeks just to have on hand for such emergencies!
As the summer continues and there is less green pick for the wildlife, the wallabies have conducted daring night time raids on the strawberry enclosure.
|The wallabies have conducted daring night time raids on the strawberry enclosure|
Maintenance of systems is always happening here and regular readers will recall that the firewood shed is continuing to fill up. Well, the wood heater is a system that has to also be maintained and this week I climbed up onto the roof to clean the flue (which is the fancy name for the steel chimney). It had been about five years since the flue was last cleaned...
|The author uses a long brush to clean all of the gunk out of the wood heater flue|
The cleaning brush comprises thick plastic bristles on a very long wire which you push up and down the flue so that the gunk in the flue falls into the wood heater below where it can be disposed of.
|The cleaning brush is inserted into the chimney in order to clean the gunk in the flue. Note the bend in the wire|
|The wire that the brush is attached to is quite long and has a bend in the middle of it for ease of storage|
At the top of the flue is a cover which is usually described (for those that are technically inclined) as a cowl. The cowl had rusted through so I now have a stainless steel unit on order. The cowl stops rain getting into the flue and rusting out the heater. In the photo below of the cowl you can see just how much gunk had built up over five years of use.
|The cowl had rusted through and you can also see just how much gunk had accumulated in just five years|
And then there was the mess which I’d brushed from the flue and was now collected in the wood heater for disposal in the garden.
|This accumulated gunk was brushed out of the flue|
The temperature outside now at about 6.00pm is 25.5'C degrees Celsius (77.9'F). So far this year there has been 49.4mm (1.9 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total 49.2mm (1.9 inches).